Long Island's Sea Ducks

Everything from eiders to long-tailed ducks are available to hunters off New York's Long Island shores. Here's how to get in on this month's action. (January 2009)

To most mainland New York hunters, gunning for sea ducks is as foreign a sport as an African safari. Yet it can be as much of an adventure as any bird hunt can be. Even though the action takes place within sight of one of the greatest metropolitan areas on Earth, sea duck hunting on Long Island Sound offers first-rate sport that should not be missed!

Last year, sea duck hunters encountered some tough hunting, but biologists believe that was the fault of weather conditions, rather than to any decline in sea duck populations.

"A lot of the big ducks never really seemed as plentiful as they have been normally," said Mike Clark, a Region 1 wildlife biologist and also an enthusiastic duck hunter. "There were birds around, but not in tight concentrations as they usually are."

That, he said, was a matter of weather patterns. "A lot of our hunting opportunity depends on what happens up north. When it gets cold up north and freezes early, we get big pushes of birds. Every weather front that comes through brings down a lot more birds. That's why down here we want as late a season as possible."

Harvest figures from the 2007 season are not yet available. But in 2006, New York hunters harvested about 9,100 sea ducks, compared to a harvest of about 8,200 sea ducks in 2005. That was just under 11 percent of the total Atlantic Flyway sea duck harvest, which includes 10 states.

New York had about 1,400 active sea duck hunters in 2006 and 1,200 in 2005 -- roughly the same proportion as the respective harvests.

This year, Clark suggested, the nesting conditions for the Atlantic Flyway were pretty good. As inland waters freeze in the north, the sea ducks that winter around Long Island begin moving south. (Continued)

Some flocks will linger on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain until those waters freeze over.

"The reason we get so many wintering birds is that salt water doesn't freeze," Clark said.

New York's sea ducks include common eiders, surf scoters, black scoters, white-winged scoters and long-tailed ducks (formerly called old squaws). Hunters also often encounter mergansers, bluebills, buffleheads and goldeneyes. Clark noted that last year, while hunting around Long Island, he harvested about a dozen different species of ducks.

New York State's regulations for sea ducks recognize only long-tailed ducks, common eiders and the three scoters. However, the Sea Duck Joint Venture also lists the king eiders, spectacled eiders, Steller's eiders, Barrow's goldeneyes, common goldeneyes, buffleheads, harlequin ducks, common mergansers, hooded mergansers and red-breasted mergansers.

"In general, these are all big-water ducks," Clark said. "We get them in the sound as well as the South Shore all the way out east."

However, the various species of sea ducks have some differences in the habitats they prefer.

"The long-tails will be in the bays and in the bigger bodies of water," Clark said. "The eiders and scoters are pretty much all big-water birds, whether they are in the sound or on the ocean."

Certainly the eiders and scoters tend to be in different places than long-tailed ducks in virtually all waters around Long Island, but hunters can expect to encounter any of these species.

The largest concentrations of sea ducks are generally found off Montauk Point, at the easternmost tip of Long Island. The South Shore, with its barrier islands, has a greater variety of salt marshes, shallow bays and estuaries.

The big thing lacking in Long Island sea duck hunting is simplicity.

"Down here, access is the No. 1 problem," Clark said. "So many of the launches are state-only or town-only, county-only or permit-only. A lot of them offer options to buy passes to launch, but access is tough on Long Island."

Hunters must also know where they are allowed to hunt. This can be confusing, but it is the hunter's responsibility to know this.

Because individual municipalities have authority over these areas and their regulations may change, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation cannot provide all the necessary information.

Unless you plan to do a lot of sea duck hunting, equipment is also an issue. "This is big-water hunting, and you need a layout boat and big strings of decoys," Clark said.

The largest concentrations of sea ducks are generally found off Montauk Point, at the easternmost tip of Long Island.

Layout boats are small watercraft, about 12 feet long. Hunters recline in the boats so they can be concealed from approaching waterfowl.

Some layout boats hold one hunter, others two. These boats are anchored from both ends, usually inside a spread of decoys.

Many hunters use dozens of decoys, set with several decoys on one line that's anchored at both ends.

Since sea ducks are typically hunted in depths of 10 feet to 40 feet of water, the anchor lines must be quite long.

According to Clark, the best hunting conditions are fairly calm seas under an overcast sky.

"You don't want it to be too calm because then the layout boat will stand out too much. But you don't want it too rough, or you're not going to be able to lie in the layout boat comfortably or safely," he explained.

A tender boat is used to haul the decoys and other gear and to tow the layout boat.

Luckily, sea ducks in general are less wary than puddle ducks. They're not as accustomed to people, so the pressure isn't the same. Where they breed, there is no one around.

"That's true," Clark said. "If you can sit still enough, you can actually pass-shoot or hunt from a skiff and shoot birds out of it."

The larger sea ducks are bigger than puddle ducks, so hunters should use larger shot. Clark said that No. 2 shot is standard for sea ducks, and that hunters sho

uld use high-velocity loads.

Hunting tactics for long-tailed ducks in the more sheltered bays is basically the same. But the bays offer the likelihood of seeing other ducks.

"You'll get mergansers and buffleheads coming through. They are all attracted to a rig of decoys," Clark said. "We'll get redheads and canvasbacks occasionally, too."

In learning more about hunting sea ducks around Long Island, your first step is gathering information from the DEC. Ask for their pamphlet, Introduction to Waterfowl Hunting on Long Island.

A good starting point for waterfowl hunters unfamiliar with the area, it contains information about boat launches, which is essential for getting to places open to public hunting.

New York's Special Sea Duck Area is defined as "the coastal waters of New York State lying in Long Island Sound, Block Island Sound, Great Peconic Bay and associated bays eastward from a line running between Miamogue Point in the Town of Riverhead to Red Cedar Point in the Town of Southampton, and any ocean waters of New York State lying south of Long Island."

This does not include smaller bays, which may be hunted only while the regular duck season is open.

Last year, the season for sea ducks in the Special Sea Duck Area was Oct. 13 through Jan. 27. The regular duck season in the Long Island Zone was Nov. 29 through Jan. 27.

During last year's season in the Special Sea Duck Area, the daily limit was seven sea ducks. At other times and in other areas, the limit on sea ducks is included in the regular daily duck limit.

Be sure to check the current regulations, which will be available wherever the required federal and state duck stamps may be purchased, or from the DEC's Web site.

Vital information about hunting sea ducks and other New York waterfowl can be obtained through the state's DEC Web site at atwww.dec.ny.gov.

Or write the New York Bureau of Wildlife, Region One headquarters, SUNY at Stony Brook, 50 Circle Road, Stony Brook, NY 11790-3409; or call (631) 444-0309.

For travel information, call the New York State Travel Information System at 1-800-CALL-NYS (that's 225-5697). Or visit that agency's Web site at www.iloveny.com.

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